Online Lab Science: Curriculum and Open Conversation

Concurrent Session 6

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

How do laboratory exercises, and the expectations associated with them, translate into online learning environments? This question and associated solutions and concerns will be the focus of our session. Specifically, we’ll host conversation on the viability of online lab science curriculum exploring practical examples and potential answers for instructors.


Keegan Long-Wheeler is an educational technologist in the Office of Digital Learning at the University of Oklahoma. Keegan uses his background in science, pedagogy, and technology to provide instructors with holistic solutions to their instructional and technological needs. Additionally, Keegan passionately creates open source professional development curriculum to engage faculty in digital literacy, experiential learning, game design, coding, and more! In particular, Keegan loves working with Domain of One's Own projects and his open professional development programs: GOBLIN, eXperience Play, WebFest, Canvas Camp, and more!

Additional Authors

Geek at large. My career is 'I've Been Everywhere' by Hank Snow. Current teaching responsibilities across chemistry and physics at Tusculum College; some accidental biologist history as well. Longtime OER advocate/nag; still refuse to claim to be anything but an open pedagogy neophyte. I'm just happy to be here.

Extended Abstract

There are unique problems to be addressed in online course design when the courses are specific to the laboratory sciences, and those courses require some kind of lab investigation in order to be completed successfully. Laboratory coursework has a set of conventional expectations for student achievement, usually concerning formal reporting or note taking, and each science discipline has a set of traditional laboratory exercises associated with it - be it the dissection in organismal biology, the titration in general chemistry, or the inclined plane in physics. How do these laboratory exercise, and the expectations associated with them, translate into online learning environments? This is the question we aim to explore and discuss alongside attendees of this session.

First, learning science is highly experiential, often introducing students to concepts and paradigms of thought during both open-ended and prescribed investigations. In fact, science courses are where many students begin to develop their scientific worldviews (thus the implications of poor online science curriculum design are dire). Nevertheless, the unique learning environment of laboratory courses sets them apart from classroom bound coursework and offers distinct opportunities to engage students. How do we capitalize on the potential of such exploratory learning in online spaces? In particular, how do traditional lab experiments translate (or how might they be altered if necessary) to maintain their instructional value online? These are critical questions we must consider before designing online lab science curriculum; because as educators, we want to support our students (online or face-to-face) as we seek to equip them with the intellectual tools needed to face the challenges of this world.

Lab science courses are unique learning environments where learning takes place in close proximity to one another. It also conventionally requires certain materials to perform investigations, from specialty lab equipment to chemical compounds. We need to question how we adapt these conventions for the purposes of online learning in a fashion that’s accessible to as many student as possible and ethical for all students. (This is where we’re asking what do experiments look like for an online course?) (And not merely that, but what VIABLE experiments for an online course are - whether we do need to talk about kits, or readily available materials from a grocery store, or whether we’re doing simulations, or some combination of each.)

Laboratory courses can be extremely social as many include group work and learning alongside a graduate teaching assistant. How do we maintain a focus on the community and conversations that exist in such an environment when facilitating an online lab course? How do we get active discussion about an experiment happening when students are working on different tactile exercises at the same time? What fair and ethical role is there for video communication in these circumstances, and through what medium? Are simulators with controllable outcomes more suitable for dialogue among groups than contrived “laboratory situations”, even with kits, where every person participating sees something different - or are the real observations of differences quality fodder for dialogue?

Finally, what are the limits in the curriculum for online learning? Especially considering the focus of lab science is often centered around developing and practicing laboratory techniques that serve as prerequisites for students continuing their scientific studies. Consequently, when institutions propose online learning in the sciences, it’s typically for courses intended for non-majors. It’s rare for institutions to consider online learning in chemistry or physics courses intended for majors - rarer still for institutions to propose full programs in a STEM discipline outside of mathematics or computer science. How can difficulties in engaging students in online learning at upper-division levels be addressed and overcome - or is such learning actually impossible?

These questions, concerns, and solutions will be the focus of our discussion. Through conversation, we intend to share and inspire educators of the possibilities of online lab science curriculum while maintaining focus on the value of human connection in teaching and learning. In particular, we will showcase viable examples of lab experiments and practical ways to host discussions and science curriculum for online learning (to support collaboration, asynchronous interactions, and everything that comprises digital spaces). These models and open materials will be made available online to drive discussion, and spark the imaginations of instructors interested in designing and teaching lab science online.